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Smyth survivors still waiting, five years after being promised church review

10 August 2023

C4 News

Smyth is confronted by Channel 4 News in 2017. He died in 2018 before he could face trial

Smyth is confronted by Channel 4 News in 2017. He died in 2018 before he could face trial

IT IS five years this week since the “lessons-learned” review of the abuse perpetrated by John Smyth was promised, and ten years since the Archbishop of Canterbury was formally told about the abuse.

The violent abuse perpetrated by Smyth, who administered brutal beatings to boys whom he had befriended at summer holiday camps, came to public attention six years ago, after an investigation by Channel 4 News  (News, 10 February 2017). Smyth, a QC, was the former chair of the Iwerne Trust (the activities of which were later assumed by the Titus Trust) which, with the Scripture Union, ran holiday camps for boys at English public schools. He died in 2018 before he could face trial (News, 13 August 2018).

It was on 13 August 2018, after Smyth’s death, that the then lead bishop for safeguarding, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, first called for a “lessons-learned” review (News, 17 August 2018). A year later, it was announced that Keith Makin, a former director of social services, had been appointed by the National Safeguarding Team (NST) (News, 16 August 2019) to carry out a review that would “identify both good practice and failings in the Church’s handling of the allegations, so lessons can be learnt”.

Mr Makin began his work in October of that year, and was due to report in August 2020, but publication of his findings has been repeatedly delayed. The pandemic has been referred to (News, 1 May 2020), and “an exceptionally high volume of information” (News, 6 August 2021).

Last December, the NST said that the review was “reaching its final stages” (News, 16 December 2022), but another delay was announced in April this year after new information was reported to the police (News, 21 April). In June, Mr Makin said that relevant extracts from the draft report would “soon be shared with the victims of John Smyth and with people who are named and criticised” (News, 15 June). There is still no date for publication.

This week, Andrew Graystone, an advocate for the survivors of Smyth’s abuse who has written a book about the case, Bleeding for Jesus (Books, 1 October 2021), said that the review was already behind schedule by the time of lockdown, and mostly not carried out face-to-face. The amount of information could have been predicted, he said.

There were other causes for the delay, including a lack of resources, he said: “The Church decided that the task of reviewing a case lasting over 40 years with more than a hundred victims could be handled by one part-time reviewer contracted for just two days a week, with a part-time assistant. The Church either didn’t recognise the scale of the review it was launching, or simply didn’t care.”

The lack of an independent accountability body to monitor the progress and scope of the review, and to ask Mr Makin “awkward questions”, was also a problem, he said. Conducting reviews was a “lucrative process”, he said, pointing to a leak by the NST in 2019 which revealed that Mr Makin’s rate was £650 per day.

An initial cause of delay, before Mr Makin’s appointment, was difficulty in persuading other key organisations — the Scripture Union (SU), the Titus Trust, and Winchester College — to collaborate on the review. All three have since commissioned their own reviews.

Although the SU did not run the camps organised by the Iwerne Trust, it employed three of the staff at Iwerne, and supported its operations. Smyth was also an SU trustee. Only the executive summary of the Independent Case Review that the charity commissioned was published (News, 1 April 2021). One of its conclusions was that the SU was deferential to the elitist “inner circle” that ran the Iwerne Trust, rarely challenging its activities, even if suspicions were aroused.

When Channel 4 News broadcast an investigation into Smyth’s abuse in 2017, the Titus Trust stated that: “It was only in 2014 that the board of the Titus Trust was informed about this matter” (News, 10 February 2017). But a timeline published by Titus Trust in 2021 revealed that trustees and staff were aware of the abuse before this date, and failed to report it to the board or other authorities. A former chairman of the Trust, Giles Rawlinson, had been given a sealed envelope containing details of Smyth’s abuse in 2000, but did not open it and read the contents for 13 years. The envelope was handed over by Tim Sterry, when he stepped down as head of the Scripture Union’s work in independent schools

An independent review of the culture at the Titus Trust was also carried out (News, 10 December 2021). In 2020, the Trust announced that it had agreed a settlement with three men after a civil claim was brought (News, 9 April 2020), and that it would co-operate fully with the NST review. It initially refused to fund counselling for Smyth’s victims, but, since 2017, it has contributed to a joint fund — with the Scripture Union and the C of E — to pay for it.

Winchester College’s independent review described how Smyth had enjoyed “unfettered access” to the school from the early 1970s until 1982, which “allowed him to groom boys and created opportunities for abuse” (News, 21 January 2022).

It is already known that many people in the Church of England were aware of Smyth’s abuse in the early 1980s. The Iwerne Trust launched an investigation after a young man grew so fearful of the beatings that he tried to take his own life in 1981. The confidential report, completed in 1982, was written by a C of E priest, the Revd Mark Ruston, when he was Vicar of Holy Sepulchre with All Saints, Cambridge, with the Revd David Fletcher (who died in 2022). The contents were shared with several Anglican clergy, but the police were not informed.

A “senior figure” in the Trust wrote to Smyth, telling him to leave the country, Channel 4 reported. He went on to live in Zimbabwe, where he continued to run holiday camps, Zambezi Ministries; and in South Africa. In Zimbabwe, “almost constant concerns” were raised about Smyth, as early as 1986.

In 1992, a 16-year-old boy, Guide Nyachuru, was found dead in a swimming pool at a Zambezi camp, prompting other young men to come forward. Smyth was charged in 1997 with culpable homicide and assault. The case collapsed after it was decided that the prosecutor had a conflict of interest. Court documents suggest that he beat more than 100 boys over 30 years, while running camps in the two countries.

A number of C of E bishops have links to the case. Among the survivors is the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson. The current Archbishop of Canterbury was a dormitory officer at Iwerne holiday camp in the late 1970s, when Smyth was one of the leaders, but he has always maintained that he was unaware of any abuse. The SU review indicated that the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, was told about the abuse in 2015, when he was President of SU. The NST has concluded that a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, saw a report about the abuse while he was Principal of Trinity College in the 1980s — a conclusion that he disputes (News, 29 January 2021).

This week includes a significant anniversary for Graham (not his real name), who first disclosed his abuse by Smyth in 2012 to a priest in the diocese of Ely. The priest, said to be another of Smyth’s victims, delayed for a year before reporting the disclosure to the diocese in August 2013, which prompted the Bishop of Ely to write to the Archbishop of Cape Town, as Smyth was then living in South Africa. There was no follow-up to ensure that action had been taken (News, 10 May 2019).

It was also at this time that Archbishop Welby was formally informed about Smyth’s abuse. He initially denied that Smyth was Anglican (News, 18 April 2019). In 2021, he offered a “full, personal apology” to Smyth’s victims, and said that the NST would “investigate every clergy person or others within their scope of whom they have been informed who knew and failed to disclose the abuse”. He also said that the review would be published in full.

“It is clear that many dozens within the extensive Iwerne community, who knew something was seriously amiss, have prolonged the agony for victims and the expense to the wider Church, by keeping silent, or being actively or passively obstructive,” Martin Sewell, a member of the General Synod, said this week.

Mr Graystone, who describes the case as “the largest abuse scandal in the Church of England for a century”, suspects that there is still “a long way to go” until publication, and that it is unlikely to take place before the Archbishop’s retirement. “There are likely to be many people on the wrong end of Mr Makin’s pen,” he said. “Many of them will call in lawyers.”

He has low expectations for the consequences of eventual publication, in terms of sanctions for those who failed to act on what they knew, or resignations. Many “key figures” had died or retired since 2012, he said. “I imagine there will be the usual apology from Lambeth Palace, posted on a website somewhere. . . Then it will be business as usual for the Church.”

The National Safeguarding Team said that it was “aware that this is a really difficult and sensitive matter that deeply affects survivors and their families”, and reiterated that continued support for victims and survivors was being provided by Nina Tanner, a specialist independent sexual-violence adviser: Nina.Tanner@fear-less.org.uk; 07825 741751.

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